After forty plus hours spent in airplanes and waiting for transfers in Shanghai, Bangkok, and Calcutta, I step outside of the arrival terminal in New Delhi. Earlier in the morning, while in line for a visa at the Bangkok airport, I booked a hostel for that evening, the first instance of any logistical planning for this India trip outside of reserving a yoga training in January.
I pull out the directions from my bag and walk towards the ATM. Taped to the ATM there’s a piece of cardboard with “No Cash” scribbled in marker. The guy sitting beside me on the prior flight told me of the recent decision of the bank of India to discontinue 500 and 1000 Rupee bills, but I hadn’t put one and one together at the time.
I then see an information desk with three men in military uniforms sitting behind a table with another cardboard sign reading “need help?”. I approach them and ask if there are any other functional ATMs or money exchanges in the area. They respond that there’s only one other place within walking distance, a bank in the building across the road.
As I walk across the busy street I feel like I’m in the old video game “frogger” — and the quick side to side dodges and the cacophony of horns honking shake me out of a stupor. Someone once described the experience of arriving into India for the first time as being in a deep slumber only to awake to the sound of a stereo blasting on full volume the music of Metallica. I found it a fitting analogy.
As I get to the ATM, I find another “no cash” sign. I wander around for another half hour, looking for any hope to latch onto, and a tuk tuk driver stops besides me and asks where I need to go. I tell him my situation, and in very broken English, he says he knows a place and tells me to get in.
Ten minutes and what felt like a hundred almost accidents later, Surender pulls over and parks. “There money exchange”, and Surender helps me pull out my rucksack and escorts me. He speaks with the guy at the counter and then faces me “no rupees here, but I know other place”. But the next guy behind the next counter shakes his head also. And then the next guy. We pass another “no cash” sign, and then another guy behind a counter shaking his head.
Surender reassures me “it be fine, no problem, come for chai”. We walk back to his tuk tuk and run into his older sister, wearing a gold embroidered dress and a a warm genuine smile. She hardly spoke any English either, but as she placed her hand on my forearm, she looked into me with piercing brown eyes that brought me back to some distant past that I couldn’t quite recall.
We drive off, and a few minutes later Surender leads me through a narrow rubble-filled alleyway. We pass a small enclosed kitchen and says something in Hindi to a younger woman cooking. He brings me to a small room, smiling he proudly declares “my home” and tells me to put down my bags. He turns on the TV, and shortly thereafter the younger women comes in the room with two cups of chai.
Surender then proceeds to show me around his room. He tells me about his two sons, his “wife love of my life”, and shows me his photos.
We finish the chai and he tells me “come”. I go to pick up my bags and he says “no, no need”. I shake my head and tell him this is all my stuff, i can’t just leave it all here. He shakes his head and laughs “come, everything fine, it safe, this my home!” He gestures with his hand as he walks out the door, and I apprehensively follow without any of my belongings.
We head back to his tuk tuk and the whirl wind tour begins. The ordering of when and wheres blurs together, but over the course of the next five hours or so, Surender literally introduces me to his entire community. I am lost and just along for the ride.
I thought we were going to another money exchange, but to my surprise he takes me to a small photography shop and we pose together.
He then asks me if I am hungry. Since I still have no money, I shake my head. Surender shakes his head, “noooo you eat”, and takes me to a corner restaurant. He doesn’t order anything for himself, but orders me a huge plate while he nods his head encouragingly watching me, smiling as I take each bite.
We then go to a Hindu temple, where there’s some sort of ritual proceeding with live musicians performing. A large bearded man enters the room draped in a brown cloth. We drop to our knees with the other devotees, showering the guru with flowers. The guru then walks up to the center alter, strips down into a thong, and collapses onto the floor. After a few minutes of chanting, he gets up, walks over to me, points to a chair for me to sit, and places a flower necklace around my neck. The other devotees then bow beneath me while they throw flowers at my feet.
We leave the temple, Stopping for countless handshakes and “selfie” poses along the way, we make our way back to his home and meet his two sons.
The Moslem prayer sounds, and I walk outside to see a mosque adjacent to his home. Surender’s neighbor Abu greets me and shows me the prayer procedure. We then walk back to Surender’s house, sit on his bed, and enjoy another chai. Abu just finished his university studies of Arabic and invites me his home town in Rajistan to stay with him and his family. He’s leaving in two days to meet his wife for the first time in Algeria, though, so the trip together will have to wait till next time.
We then pile into the car of his older son. There’s four of us laughing and pumping our heads back and forth to “Night at the Roxbury” at full blast cruising around the neighborhood, stopping off at all the “must see” sites. We pull over and park in front of a beaten-down long concrete building on a dead end street. His son, Akbar, introduces me to a stern looking bearded man whom he described as “gangster for real, bang bang” and then looks at me solemnly nodding his head with his finger pistols shooting up in the air while the stern man continues to look at me sternly.
The tour continues on for a few more hours, till we wind down the day with a walk through their local park. Akbar introduces me to a group of his friends sitting at a bench, smoking a joint and exchanging free styles in Hindi. We then set up a volleyball net and play till the sun sets. I thank everyone and bid them farewell.
Surender walks me back to his home and we grab my bags. Before we leave, he lifts up his bed, searches in the chest for a moment, and pulls out a machete wrapped in newspaper. “Here this gift to you”. I shake my head while laughing. “Thank you very much, but I can’t”. He pushes the machete forward and insists. “No please, this for protection. You need. Gift for you.” I laugh again as I think about the practical absurdity of me carrying around a machete for five months, and thank him again for everything but repeat that I can’t accept this. He smiles, we get into his tuk tuk, and then drops me off at the closest metro station fifteen minutes away. I arrive at the hostel late into the evening, and despite not having slept in the past several days, I lie in bed alert, with a cornucopia of chai still lingering in my body, a highlight reel from the day plays itself in my mind.
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Traveling is so much more then moving from geographic place to place. It is first and foremost a state of mind. It is the enthusiastic greeting towards the expansive unknown and a commitment to dancing in the freedom she offers.
It is an understanding, a recognition, that we are each but different masks, different forms, of the same universe perceiving itself. For we are each but an expression of the one and the many at the same time. The traveler lives to explore this paradox and revels in it.